The Day Always Starts at Zero.

It takes between 20 and 50 impressions, depending on whose data you believe, before a message gets through to a B2B buyer. It makes this hill a lot steeper when we realize that for many brands, each ad viewed and sales email received delivers a slightly different message. Impressions, after all, need to build on each other. If they’re strategically diffused (at best) or random (at worst), the brand never moves forward. We never get our prospect to Impression #2 – let alone Impression #50 – because the counter is continuously set back to zero.

I’ve had this conversation often with agency and brand-side marketers over the years – I even asked the question in a webinar I hosted once with several dozen channel-facing executives on the line – asking whether they felt their field sellers could articulate their brand’s pitch within a generous plus-or-minus range. The answer? Zero. Similarly, friends at the alpha level of advertising relate stories of how clients are increasingly handing over high level brand strategy decks and asking agencies to, “develop a campaign out of this – quickly.”

Ask yourself if your company is any different. If the hard work hasn’t been done, we can’t expect the kind of results that take hard work to create.

The Problem: Silos, Urgency, and the Nice-to-Have Trap.

This is as much a real problem for marketing-intensive brands that rely on breakthrough creative and smart media planning (thinking financial services and CPG brands) as it is for sales- and partner-reliant brands (looking at most technology brands). But why the disconnect?

The first reason is that this kind of strategic heavy lifting is often assigned to a single functional silo (marketing) without the participation, and thus the buy-in, of others. Sales needs to believe it and feel part of it in order to deliver it, just as management needs to breathe it and support it. Without this organization-wide buy-in, the work lives its full natural life and dies without ever leaving its marketing Sharepoint folder.

As a result, a fully articulated messaging architecture – the connective tissue between high level brand strategy on one hand and the critical marketing (and sales) outputs on the other – is often relegated to the “nice to have” pile. “Our sales team is sort of on the same page, but you’re right – we need to get our arms around this… we don’t have this figured out,” you’ll hear, “but we should.”

Given the high table stakes involved, this should be enough to elevate this work to a “need-to-have” designation. It is for many brands. Just not frequently enough.

Nice-to-haves vs. Need-to-haves.

Sometimes, we just don’t think the work is very serious – “It’s fun to do, but I waste half a day doing it and I really don’t know how it connects to revenue,” you’ll hear. For those who don’t obsess over brand positioning, I can understand. Creating mission and vision statements are great exercises at the strategic level and need to be revisited on an annual or semi-annual basis, but many in the organization don’t see the need to spend a lot of time on this. For most brands, these statements live on posters in the break room next to exhortations about not leaving food in the fridge over the weekend.

The third leg of the break room trifecta is spending time on “corporate values.” It’s pointless to debate these in workshops because these are things actions you see and experience every day, not words on a slide – they’re what your ex-employees tell their friends when they talk about you.

So, in our case here, the definition of severity and seriousness we need to adhere to is whether the outputs affect financial outcomes. How we put this work to use – how we activate these strategic concepts – is what moves hearts and minds (and quota attainments).

First, the Strategic Work.

Where I’ve seen the most success is when the most emphasis is applied to how messaging and positioning are activated – how they’re put to use to drive incremental revenue, create competitive choke-points or wedges in the mind of the market, and where crafting and truly amplifying a unique and sharp-edged point of view can create opportunities.

How does this work? And why is it important?

When I wrote Killing Giants: 10 Strategies to Topple the Goliath In Your Industry (Portfolio) in 2011 (buy link here at Porchlight Books), I interviewed over 70 of some of the world’s most effective businesspeople, from Silicon Valley to the townships of South Africa. In my research, I discovered that if you let people talk, they’ll tell you what they’re thinking, what they’ve seen, and what they’ve heard. Tell them what others have said and they’ll build on ideas. If you’re a careful listener (and if you’re willing to become a good interviewer), you’ll end up in some interesting places that you didn’t necessarily have planned when the call started.

I’ve used the same approach in developing messaging architecture for clients. This is where I start – with a deep discovery process. This means I interview everybody: internals, partners, end users, influencers, everybody. The interviews will evolve over time, and you’ll find your last few are incredibly different than your first set.

It’s important here to make sure your interview list goes well beyond the internals, too. “Our own people” tend to think they know what they know with great certainty – as the old joke says, they’re often wrong, but never in doubt. Combat this by ensuring you’re talking to actual buying customers, strategic partners, and others outside the bubble. When I interviewed adidas’ former chief creative officer Paul Gaudio while writing Unfiltered Marketing (buy link here), he used a phrase that I love to share, calling it, “swimming in the culture.” Not much beats getting the vocabulary and hearing about the pain points right from the source.

The key elements I’ve always included in the top half of a messaging architecture engagement start with a positioning statement.

“For [target: the defined ICP], [brand: the brand or product/solution] is the [description: clarity, not cleverness, around what the solution is] that [claim: what the solution does for the ICP] because [proof: why we can believe the claim].”

This isn’t customer-facing copy. It’s a statement of who you are and who you’re not. It draws careful distinction between alternatives and frankly does a better job of articulating the company’s “mission” than the typical mission statement does.

I stole the “controlling idea” from Robert McKee’s STORY seminar years ago, capturing the impact of an inciting incident on a protagonist – the incident that sends our hero down a path from which they cannot conceivably turn back from – and transposing it into how a brand irrevocably changes the life of a user. This helps breathe life into how we communicate about what we do.

I find distilling key words to be helpful – the words we want to own, the words we want to use, and the ones we never use – especially when we get to the part where we start crafting sharp-edged and (hopefully) provocative points of view.

All of this is very much the warmup act for the creation of the actual messaging architecture itself – the primary message you always deliver whenever you talk about yourself, the secondary messages that describe major must-have points of differentiation, and the tertiary messages that lay out the kind of context that could suddenly become deal-winners when played correctly.

What I’ve just described above is front-end work. And this is where most agencies, consultants, and brand-side marketers stop, which is a shame – because this is where you really need to get working.

Putting the Strategic Work to Work: from “Nice-to-Have” to “Need-to-Have.”

How do we make money now? What turns messaging architecture into incremental revenue?

How we take the finely engineered, razor-sharp positioning and messaging and turn it into money is what turns this “nice-to-have” deliverable into a “need-to-have” strategic pillar that drives the top and bottom line of the business.

The messaging architecture framework becomes the creative brief for your agencies, which in turn becomes your ad campaign. Take the factual, visceral positioning and – in the words of Robert McKee, again – “give them what they want, just not the way they expect to get it.” You get better ad creative and sharper media plans by giving these agency partners better input at the front end of the process.

Your sales playbook, partner playbook, and your entire go-to-market strategy naturally fall out of your messaging architecture. Further activating your playbook through a smart lead generation program (like the AIM Program we’ve run for many brands that work through indirect partnerships) puts a specific dollar figure on every salesperson you evangelize to and has been proven over the years to be a repeatable way to take messaging and turn it into revenue in the immediate time frame.

(Want a quick primer on the AIM Program? Here’s a quick video, below):

There are two strategic outputs we should discuss here, as well.

A thoroughly developed messaging architecture helps a smart brand craft a sharp-edged point of view. Laying out who you are and what you do is a necessary first statement upon which all outbound marketing activities depends, but authoring a creative execution of your key messaging that provokes a response from the market – your customers as well as your competitors – is a powerful second punch of a well-developed combination. What provocative points of view does your brand have about the business you’re in? How do you see the world differently than all the rest of your dull competitors in the market? Have you simply thought harder about the big issues your customers face and do you have deeply held opinions that they haven’t figured out yet? Even if your newly honed point of view isn’t necessarily held by your customer, you’ve clearly put a marker down that you’re the thought leader in town, not the other guys. This exploration starts in your messaging architecture.

Equally important in the crafting of a provocative point of view is your ability to position your competitors by your statements and actions – to paint them all with a broad brush when viewed against your public positions. When Jim Koch of the Boston Beer Company said, “Sam Adams is not a beginner’s beer,” he did more than just stake a claim to the moral high ground of the American beer world. He unambiguously taught us all that to not drink Sam Adams meant we were unsophisticated beginners with childish tastes. This is never a compliment if you’re in the slipstream of this brand’s positioning. But it was brilliant work by a very smart brand.

An equally smart marketer with an ad budget is going to squint at this and find a way to apply it to their own situation effectively.

Getting to 50 – Faster.

Doing the hard work first, getting alignment and buy-in up front, and arming your agencies and field sellers with the best possible tools to be successful is a guaranteed gameplan to get the most out of what your brand does for the world.

The sooner you can guarantee that the second impression really is building upon the first one you put in front of your prospect, the faster you’re going to rack up these touch points to get to the magical 20 or 50 needed to push them into the win column.

Without this discipline – and it really is a case of organizational discipline – every day is Groundhog Day (pop culture reference), where you and your prospect are forced to relive the same day, over and over again. Except, of course, that you keep spending time and money that never seems to get replenished no matter how it gets wasted.

So let this be an exhortation to do one simple thing: consciously work on ensuring that the messages you send out to your prospects build on each other by saying the important things, over and over. Yes, you might get bored of saying them. That’s no reason to change.

Just because you’ve heard it a thousand times doesn’t mean your prospect has – they won’t even retain what you’re saying until they get to around 49 or so. But that’s where the magic happens.